Greetings, all. Ambush Bug here with another AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS column. Dr. Karen Oughton reports once again from the Film 4 FrightFest that went on last week. This time talking with Farren Blackburn who is the director of the 300/SPARTACUS-esque looking brutal actioner HAMMER OF THE GODS. Here’s the trailer!
Now let’s see what Doc Karen and Farren had to say...
DR KAREN OUGHTON (DKO): Can you tell us about the story of HAMMER OF THE GODS?
FARREN BLACKBURN (FB): Yeah, sure. HAMMER OF THE GODS is a sort of Viking action epic piece – a kind of APOCALYPSE NOW with Vikings. It’s the story of Prince Steinar, the young pretender to the throne who is sent on a quest by his father, the king, to find his estranged elder brother who is deemed the person the future of the Vikings hinges on and the rightful heir to the throne. Stein recruits a small band of fellow Vikings and they go off in search of his elder brother only to find this strange Colonel Kurtz-type figure holed up in a cave in the north of England and it becomes very apparent that he will be more of a liability than anything else. Over the course of that journey the brother undergoes a bit of a character transformation and he assumes the place of the new king, which we kind of get the idea was his father’s plan all along.
DKO: That sounds fabulous! I must admit I’m a massive Viking freak. How do you balance what sounds like detailed family scenes with the slaughter?
FB: What I tried to do throughout this movie was to give it its own distinct, original tone. On a lower budget we couldn’t compete with the likes of 300 or even CENTURION and so I had to try and make it original with an offbeat tone and strange sensibility – it feels almost supernatural. Even in the domestic settings it still has a current of something ‘other’ and impending threat. Hopefully that helps to merge those family and violent sequences where we have the brutality and the confrontation. I hope you feel a sense of foreboding from start to finish.
DKO: Foreboding – I love that word! Considering the word ‘Hammer’ in the title, we might assume HAMMER OF THE GODS describes the gods or is related to the legend of Thor. How much of the film is related to the old Viking myths or sagas?
FB: It’s very loose, by our own admission. Because we had to scale a lot down, we wanted to make an entertaining romp of a movie and not a historically accurate piece. You’ll recognise the name of Ivar the Boneless and the dates and period and the battle, which is based on the battle of Ashdown. Actually, at the screening we had historian Dan Cruickshank there as his daughter was one of our makeup designers and he said, “You know, you’ve got quite a lot of historical stuff right”. I was like, yeah, well, great! [Farren sounds sweetly bashful at this point.] So we’ve had a bit of an endorsement from a reputable historian, but we’re not saying it’s that accurate.
DKO: Farren, you’ve got Ivar the Boneless. I’m happy! In terms of the violence, what effect do you want to achieve with it because it’s quite extensive.
FB: It was a bit of a departure for me. I do have a darker sensibility and an edge in things like THE FADES and LUTHER on television, but I’ll admit that although it’s more pockets of combat with five or six Vikings against pockets of Saxons, it’s like guerrilla warfare rather than epic battles. We didn’t shy away from the brutality of it and whilst I’d hate for people to think the brutality was gratuitous, I could perhaps see where some people think it is. I like to justify and motivate the violence, but the bottom line is they were incredibly violent times and if a gang of Vikings bumped into a gang of Saxons they would fight. Brutally. People would raise a sword or a hammer and cut you down rather than negotiate and I wanted to reflect that. A lot of it was wanton bloodlust and fights were sport to a lot of these guys. When our heroes encounter Saxons it gets messy. There is a heightened sensibility to it as well in the film. The Vikings are not wholly invisible but they’re pretty ruthless and at times appear like superheroes.
DKO: In our post 9/11 age of superhero movies we have supposedly ‘good’ characters we can pin our hopes on. That said, the Vikings had a very different moral code to us – they did not brook insults. Why do you think we’re still so fascinated by Vikings now in light of that?
FB: One thing that fascinated me while making the film was that there are elements of the film that question religion, myth and ideology. I remember having a conversation with one of the actors playing a character who is talking about cave trolls. I had this conversation about what it must have been like in this period where you didn’t have science and technology to disprove anything and people genuinely believed that there were cave trolls or that the Gods could strike you down if you stepped out of line. It must have been terrifying. Those things feel so alien to the world we live in that so many people, if they could travel back in time, would choose this era to go back to because there’s a real danger to it that is terrifying but at the same time quite exciting. I think of some things that our characters do would be true of the time as they lived on the edge. It’s amazing in our existence of science and technology to try and appreciate what it must have been like to live in that time.
DKO: Do you think your characters in this film are trying to be moral or just trying to survive?
FB: I think part of the main character’s journey is that he starts out as a man of reason. He undoubtedly has to fight, but it’s out of the need to survive while so many people did enjoy it as a sport. There’s a blood lust about a lot of the characters and while he’s not like that to begin with, he begins to question whether it’s possible to live a life of reason and survive and he wonders whether to embrace the darkness and brutality. That’s what ultimately makes him what he thinks his father thinks he can entrust his people to. So he questions the brutality of the time and he questions the nature of religion and belief in the Gods and kind of pooh-poohs it. It’s a journey into the heart of darkness, which is why I think there’s that link into APOCALYPSE NOW and Joseph Conrad.
In our little band of brothers we’ve got our main protagonist who is trying to be a voice of reason, we’ve got a guy who is like a hippy Viking talking about the Gods and the omens, a guy who in today’s world would be the one dancing on the table in the pub at the end of the night who always gets you into a fight and we’ve got the really serious warrior character. I tried to get them all separate identities. They’re like a little band of rock ‘n’ roll Vikings, I think.
DKO: Brilliant! I want to be a Viking groupie! Stylistically, you’ve worked on everything from DR WHO to FOOTBALLERS WIVES, which people sometimes look down on but which was incredibly popular in the UK. How do you find your style has evolved?
FB: In the earlier days those were the kind of shows that I was involved in to push doors down to be given an opportunity. When you’ve come from film school and you’ve got a short film or two to your name it’s really cut throat and those are the shows where you show that you can work the actors, tell a story and, most importantly, prove to producers that you can deliver to a schedule and are not a risk. You have to fit into a house style. What I did was to continue making short films along the way. I maintained a voice in the way I go about things. You can prove you’re not a risk and provide a body of work that’s more personal.
I think style is something that emerges out of the way you feel is most appropriate to tell that story. I’m not one who imposes style for style’s sake. I ask myself questions in terms like, “Where do I need to put this camera to move the narrative forward?” Inevitably the choices you make are all informed by your own view and opinions, your own moral standing and experience of life. I think that’s where your voice comes in inevitably and your personality is stamped on everything you do. It’s not something that I feel is particularly conscious.
DKO: So a lot of what you do is your inspiration rather than collaborations with cast and crew?
FB: I think that as the director you’ve got to have the overall vision. I like to be able to create a framework where people can contribute ideas, but ultimately all of those decisions have to come from me and have to be a uniformed vision. I will work on the scripts, I will give a brief to the casting director for the characters and I will want, say, the character of Grim to have this personality. Even in terms of the way the costumes are designed I ask, “Who is the character and how would they dress?” I’ll work with the production designer on the kind of sets that I want and we’ll throw in our ideas and research the period. The one thing I said to everyone is that I want there to be a sense of foreboding, so in terms of lighting and mood we create something that has shadow and darkness. Music and sound and all those things contribute to that. Ultimately where there are ten decisions you could make, you have to have one so I always come back to story.
DKO: So do you try to go for a story arc that’s going to be powerful or one that’s going to suit the character?
FB: So long as the story undergoes a clear journey and the character emerges as a different character, whether moral or not, you want to follow that journey and be party to the decisions made and how that affects that outcome. Maybe in Hollywood one character might emerge as a real hero, but here he emerges as he starts out more, slightly morally-grounded, like an antihero. I think it makes it more interesting.
DKO: Apart from enjoying it, what reaction do you want audiences to have to HAMMER OF THE GODS?
FB: Obviously I want them to be entertained first and foremost. I want them to be on edge throughout the movie and feel this is not like the movies they’re used to seeing. I hope they come away with a sense of something slightly otherworldly and that it’s a nice fit for FrightFest. I’m delighted it’s at the festival and if people think it’s sat neatly at the festival then I’ll have achieved what I set out to achieve.
DKO: What’s next for you now?
FB: I’m currently doing MUSKETEERS, which is going to be a lot of fun. I’ve recently been represented by the CAA in Los Angeles and am now reading a lot of Hollywood studio scripts. I’m hoping to take the step into big budget movies, but in the next 18 months or so we’ll find out.
DKO: Farren, well done! A huge pat on the back and a glass of grog to you!
FB: Thanks! *laughs* Great to speak to you!
DKO: You too! HAMMER OF THE GODS had its UK premiere at Film4FrightFest on Saturday 24th August and can be seen here in the states now in limited theatrical release and on Video On Demand. Look for more updates about HAMMER FO THE GODS on its Facebook page here!
Follow Dr Karen Oughton on the Twitter @DrKarenOughton!
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